Background: Russ’s first exposure to music came from his church, where his father was the choir director as well as being a frequent vocal soloist and having a vocal gospel quartet. His father’s whole family were music lovers and several of his brothers and sisters have marvelous voices, something Russ admits never got passed on to him. “I began piano lessons at 9 with the expectation that I’d one day be the church pianist. My musical interests took me elsewhere but my sister who is 2 years younger actually went on to fulfill my parent’s dreams and is now directing the music program for a church in Watsonville, CA,” Russ says.
Beside his early interest in the piano, Russ also tried other instruments, making the most headway on drums, even going as far as playing drums on a couple of gigs and recording sessions. His experience with the drums has benefited his piano and keyboard playing and composing as a result.
As for musical education, Russ relates the following: “I took piano lessons from a wonderful piano teacher in San Jose, CA named Ann Penner, from age 9-16 or so, nothing fancy, just the basics. I got interested in jazz and pop around the age of 15 and studied jazz from whatever sources were available, notably scattered lessons with local jazz musicians, jazz theory books that I found or were recommended to me, and listening to my favorite recordings and transcribing songs and solos. Regrettably I never formally studied music in school.”
Influences: “The first recording I heard that really got me excited about being a musician was “Swiss Movement” by Les McCann and Eddie Harris. I loved the way the musicians combined jazz, R&B, and gospel music. This marriage of jazz and R&B was something I heard a lot around San Jose where I grew up. There was one musician in particular, Clifford Coulter, who greatly inspired me.
“Around the same time, I was introduced to John Coltrane’s ‘My Favorite Things’ and various recordings by Miles Davis. I didn’t understand that music at all but nonetheless, I immediately loved it! Along with these recordings, I was listening to and drawing inspiration from The Beatles, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band” and Joni Mitchell’s first album “Clouds”.”
“I’ve been privileged to write with and produce records for: Bobby McFerrin, Al Jarreau, Michael Franks, Diane Reeves, Rita Coolidge, Sadao Watanabe, Marilyn Scott, Kevyn Lettau, Eric Marienthal, and Sergio Salvatore among others. I’ve also arranged for Take 6, The GRP Big Band, Lee Ritenour, and many others.”
Artists Russ Has Performed With: “There are so many, but at the risk of omitting some, I’d say my favorite have been: Jimmy Witherspoon, Jim Pepper, Joe Farrell, Joni Mitchell, Bobby McFerrin, Robben Ford, Al Jarreau, Marilyn Scott, Kevyn Lettau, Ernie Watts, Sadao Watanabe, GRP Big Band, Lee Ritenour, Tom Scott, Take 6, Michael Franks, Eric Marienthal, and Brenda Russell.”
What does Russ listen to? “Everything by John Coltrane, especially “Giant Steps”, “Ballads”, “A Love Supreme”, and “Live at Birdland”. Everything by Miles Davis, especially “Kind of Blue”, “Milestones”, “My Funny Valentine”, “Four and More”, “Sketches of Spain”, “Miles Smiles”, and “Nefertiti”. Keith Jarrett, especially “Facing You”, “My Song”, “Belonging”, and all the “standards” recordings. Weather Report, especially “Heavy Weather”. Eddie Harris, especially “Listen Here”, “Silver Cycles” and “Swiss Movement”. Orchestral music by Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Copeland, Bartok, Samual Barber, and much, much more.”
Equipment: Russ uses a Steinway & Sons grand piano, Roland JV2080, Korg Triton, and SGProX. G4 laptop w/ Logic, Protools LE, Finale, and Unity Session.
Home Life and Other Interests: “My wife, Gerry and I have both been actively involved in Union Station Homeless Services Foundation, serving the needs of the homeless in the Pasadena area. For man years, we were privileged to help organize a fundraising event at The Los Angeles Music Academy to raise awareness and money for the needs of the homeless. Also the past several years I’ve been increasingly involved in jazz education and now teach at University of Southern California and Musicians Institute in Hollywood. I am also an incurable NBA fan, having played one year of basketball at San Jose State Univ. before music really took hold of me.
“Family is my #1 priority, with all the care and feeding that accompanies a 30 year marriage and an 27 year old daughter, not to mention our lovable Chihuaua, Carmen.